Until very recently, Jared Harris held major roles in two popular TV shows — as David Robert Jones on Fringe and as Lane Pryce on Mad Men. Then, in less than a month, the respective show runners killed off both of his characters, one by electrocution and crumbling to ashes (Fringe) and the other with a grisly, vindictive suicide (Mad Men).
Yet less than 24 hours after this season’s penultimate Mad Men episode ended with Pryce hanging himself in his office, Harris chatted warmly on a conference call with reporters about the death of the prickly but lovable Pryce, what it was like to prepare for the suicide scene and what’s next now that Mad Men is in his rearview mirror.
The son of legendary Irish actor Richard Harris — who capped a 45-year film career by starring as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator and Professor Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films — Jared Harris has achieved a solid career in TV and independent film on both sides of the pond. Still, most Americans would probably recognize him in the role of Pryce, the by-the-book (for the most part), well-mannered Englishman with a penchant for waistcoats and worrying looks.
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Pryce’s life took a dark turn this season, beginning when he learned that by liquidating his stock portfolio to help out his struggling firm, he incurred a sizable tax bill to the British government. Too ashamed to ask his partners for the money to pay it off, Pryce forged a company check, believing he would be paid a Christmas bonus and it would be merely a 13-day loan. When the other partners canceled their bonuses, he was caught red-handed, and Don Draper demanded his resignation, saying he could not be trusted.
Interestingly, Harris believes that Pryce’s problems began last season, when he allowed himself to be corrupted by Don. With Pryce’s wife over in London and Draper living in bachelor squalor, the two men hit the town, and Pryce let Draper buy him the services of a prostitute. “You had a strong sense of a moral code about Lane, and he seems to have broken it,” Harris said. “Matt [Weiner] talked to me about that … he was being corrupted by Don. And once you’ve been corrupted, there’s no way of going back.”
And so, as the season’s filming was drawing to a close and Mad Men‘s writers were sketching out story lines and character arcs, Weiner called Harris into his office. He offered the actor “incredibly expensive brandy, and then I knew this wasn’t going to go well,” Harris said. “I could see, from an acting point of view, it was to my benefit to go out with a bang rather than a whimper.”
Most of the cast didn’t know Pryce would kill himself until right before filming began — save for Jon Slattery (who plays Roger Sterling), who Harris said “knows where the scripts are hidden.” On the day they filmed the scene in which the SCDP partners discover Pryce’s body, the makeup artists applied his grisly death look and sneaked him in through the back of the soundstage. The first time Draper (Jon Hamm), Sterling and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) saw Pryce’s body hanging from the ceiling was the first time the actors saw Harris made up to look dead.
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“The tricky thing with that look was the tongue,” Harris said. “When we looked at photographs of people that hung themselves, the tongue protrudes out the mouth, and you try and figure out how you can get the tongue to stick out in that sort of weird, lifeless way. But your tongue has a life of its own, and it twitches. It doesn’t like being put in an exact position, and it’ll start to retract of its own volition. It was little things like that you end up focusing on — making sure you can’t breathe and being loose so you bounce on the door properly and you don’t just come to a sudden stop.”
While preparing for Pryce’s death scene was difficult, Harris said he spent a great deal of time rehearsing the various emotions that came out when Don caught on to his theft — denial, sobbing, one final shot at a mea culpa. In the end, he doesn’t see Pryce, or even Draper, as a bad person; they’re complex characters Weiner has crafted over years of writing. “People are human beings, and people have good moments and they have bad moments,” Harris said. “If a camera was following you around every day of every moment in life, there are things that you would like to edit out of it, things you wouldn’t be proud of showing people.”
While it was difficult to leave the show, Harris said he was thankful for the generosity Weiner showed him, arranging the schedule so he could shoot Steven Spielberg‘s upcoming film Lincoln, in which he will play Union general and future President Ulysses S. Grant. When asked if Lane Pryce is in any way similar to Weiner, Harris balked at first. “All season long this season,” he said later, “I wore one of Matt Weiner’s handkerchiefs in my top pocket, and it was from the Playboy Club. Anyway … go on.”
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